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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Concert Review: A Song for the Departed

Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler at Symphony Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Camilla Tilling sings "Der Himmlische Leben" at Symphony Hall as Bernard Haitink
conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Stu Rosner © 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Bernard Haitink has enjoyed a four-decade association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, culminating in a successful term (1995-2004)  as the orchestra's principal guest conductor. (He currently holds the title of Conductor Emeritus.) This week, Mr. Haitink returned to Symphony Hall for a program exploring the lighter repertory of two great symphonists: Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler.

Now 84, Mr. Haitink continues to exhibit a calm, almost placid manner on the podium. This outward passivity is contradicted by his precise leadership, with clear, individual voicing of instruments, an ear for pin-point details and a skill at unveiling the quirks and hidden beauties of the most familiar score.

This program, heard Saturday evening, opened with a lithe account of Schubert's Fifth Symphony. Written when the composer was just 19, this is the symphony closest in spirit to the composer's major chamber works. It is also the most intimate, scored for strings, woodwinds and just one horn. Choosing to emphasize that intimacy, Mr. Haitink seated the players in a close, circular arrangement.

In the opening Sonata Allegro, Mr. Haitink emphasized the graceful arcs of melody that are a Schubert trademark. The slow movement was almost at a limpid stasis, with the  impressionistic quality of dappled light. Warm cellos and violas led the way with delicate accompaniment from the winds. A loping Scherzo followed, its stately and very Viennese dance theme yielding to a Trio of shimmering beauty. The final Rondo was quick-footed and good-natured, very much in the model of the composer'ss hero Mozart.

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is among this composer's most popular works, but its universal appeal belies a tortured, grim message hiding behind the melodic sweetness. Mahler designed this symphony to culminate in song: specifically "Der Himmlische Leben", a depiction of the delights enjoyed by children in the afterlife, frolicking in the vegetable gardens of paradise to the heavenly music of St. Cecilia.

The grim part (of course) is that those children are dead.

Mr. Haitink conducted the Fourth with a thorough understanding of that subtext, gearing the first three movements toward the expression of Mahler's ultimate intent. The first movement, trading off between a bold, almost naïve woodwind melody and a lilting, sad theme for the strings culminated in a mighty climax of trumpets that (oddly enough) anticipates the main theme of the composer's Fifth while also dropping references to the three that came before.

In the second movement, the evening's concertmaster picked up a second violin, tuned a step higher. The purpose: to play the demonic part of "Freund Hein," a demonic fiddler whose searing, jarring entries in the Scherzo, suggest a grim fate for those heaven-dwelling children. The slow third movement was finely wrought. Conducted very slowly, this slow-building Adagio might serve as a consolation to victims of the Boston Marathon attacks earlier this month, providing healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved.

Soprano Camilla Tilling sang the solo part in the final movement, conducted again with a slow tempo and great seriousness of purpose from Mr. Haitink. The images in this song (drawn from Mahler's favorite source Das Knaben Wunderhorn are simple and child-like: the joys of a heavenly feast being prepared, the pealing bells (played on timpani and harps) of the choirs of heaven ringing softly out. As the final notes played, Mr. Haitink held up both hands for total silence. Whether this was out of respect for the departed or for Mahler himself, one cannot be sure.

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